Friday, January 30, 2015

Review Criteria, The Superbowl, and Liking What You Like

I'm sure you will all be overjoyed to hear that I'm adding two new elements to my review criteria: memorability, on the same scale of one-to-five as the rest, and the far less quantifiable overall emotional response, which could be anything along the lines of "curiously hungry," "lying on the floor crying for an hour," or "compelled to research the Outer Hebrides."

You're welcome.

On a different note: I wanted to talk a bit more about something I mentioned in my review of Sunshine (the bad one about the vampires, not the good one about small-town hate crimes.)

But first, two short stories: the Superbowl and The Fifth Element.


I'm not a huge sports fan. I like food and good company, though, so I agreed to watch the Superbowl with some friends a few years ago. I planned to enjoy their presence and to vegetate during the actual game.

Unfortunately, one of my friends took umbrage at my lack of investment in the game. They insisted that I MUST pay attention and appreciate what was happening on-screen. So, overriding my protests--and my insistence that I was having a perfectly good time neither knowing nor caring!--they lectured me on the proper terminology, rules, and strategies of football, quizzing me for comprehension during commercial breaks. 

For three solid hours. 

Needless to say, I had a terrible time. It ruined what was supposed to be a relaxing evening. Nor did it increase either my understanding or enjoyment of sports events. (Dear friends, if someone is willing to accompany you in something they don't enjoy, for the sake of your company, accept that as the gift that it is.)

More recently, I invited another friend to watch the movie The Fifth Element with me. I had seen it for the first time the week before. While the movie was terrible--sometimes intentionally, as a nod to the '80s traditions which inspired it, and sometimes due to actual terrible writing--I thought there were parts of it worth discussing. (Sidenote: A lot of my movie-watching commentary is about the difference between the potential of the idea and what actually ended up on film. I think a lot about reviewing occasional movies here. Any takers?)

Whether out of faith in my general taste in media, or out of her own generosity, Sarah suffered through the whole thing so that I could have someone analyze it with me. We had a lot of fun picking it apart later, and discussing what could have been done better.

These are both stories about one person being more "into" a thing than their companion. The approach ("Want to watch this thing I like that you probably won't like as much so that we can discuss it?" vs. "I require you to care about this as much as I do, and I will force you to behave like I would!") and the ultimate outcome of each evening couldn't be more different

What does this have to do with Book Grumps?

As much as I enjoy writing reviews--the good, the bad, and the ugly--I don't require any of you to agree with my judgments of books. If I praise a book which, as far as you're concerned, reads like someone put a thesaurus through a paper shredder, I won't take it personally.  I can't force you to like something. I can tell you what I like about it. Then you get to make your own judgment.

Nor is any personal insult intended if you recommend to me your favorite book in the whole wide world... and I detest it. And even if I plan to compare it to cat vomit in my review for the world at large, I won't shred it to your face, out of respect for you. Something in the book pleased and delighted you, and that's wonderful. I won't try to take that from you.

If I say that a book is terrible, I will never mean that you are terrible for liking it, or that there is something wrong with your taste.

To go for the low-hanging fruit here: I'm not above taking potshots at Twilight, but I don't want to go after fans of Twilight. There's a time and a place for young teen girls (and lonely middle-aged housewives) to feel like they are special and alluring, deserving of attention from someone fascinating and powerful. I'd hope that, in time, they would grow out of that stage and look for healthier, more well-written media, but again, I can't make them.

Everyone's reading experience is unique. A few months on Goodreads has shown me that while I have a lot of book-loving friends, even within the same genres, our tastes couldn't be more different. It's rare to find someone who looks for the same things in a book as I am. I'm grateful to Ed for the suggestion that I break down what goes into my initial "[___] out of 5 stars" rating. I hope that has helped guide your reaching choices. For some of you, the craft of writing--A.K.A., something which ties me in knots--isn't as important as whether your heart is moved. For others of you, the most beautiful story in my collection will never meet your needs, because I can consider character deaths a "happy" ending and you never will.

Instead of being an insult or an argument, that becomes an opportunity to get to know someone better. What makes you like a book that I loathe--and vice versa?

I'd be happy to enjoy a Superbowl party because my friends are there, having fun, even if I don't actually like watching football. Sarah didn't end up sharing my love of The Fifth Element, but afterwards we had a good conversation about its potential to be better.

Please feel free to disagree with my review of a book at any time, whether privately or publicly. If you thought a positive review of mine was misleading, let me know. If I canned a book you recommended to me, I'd still be happy to talk with you about why you recommended it, the things that it sparked in your heart and mind.  I've changed my mind on books before!

You can always leave me a recommendation in a comment or by email. Or you can follow me on Goodreads, where I do star ratings and short comments for the books which I didn't feel warranted a full blog post.

Now go enjoy the Superbowl in whatever way seems best to you. 

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